Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Links

The Oh God I Really Need A Weekend Edition:
  • Not sure I fully agree with everything being claimed in this Atlantic article, but it does raise an interesting question - and no, it's not the tired one about "art." It's more the implied question: when is a game (or artistic product, really) "finished"? Does the ability to patch/fix games so easily undermine their value? In other words, how is the idea of a "published product" changing?
  • An Australian columnist reads some serious political and moral subtext in Angry Birds.
  • At Gamasutra, designer Ernest Adams' column on "joy" in games is a terrific read for aspiring developers and established pros alike. As a player, there's a lot of fun to be had in just screwing around in a game world.
  • My favorite thing about Stallion83 - he of the quest for 1,000,000 Xbox achievement points - is the way even the most tongue-in-cheek fluff piece about him inspires crazy polarizing reactions.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In Rotation, October 2010

Not a ton of new stuff to add to the list this month, but good stuff nonetheless:

XBOX 360
  • Dead Rising 2. Happy(?) to report the game's unabashed, directionless sexism continues apace. That aside, I'm having fun with it. I've still never not finished last in the multiplayer, but the whole premise - a kind of American Gladiators spectacle with zombies - is so ridiculous I hardly care. I won't pretend I'm not a little let down by this sequel; as Brad Gallaway points out, there's really not much new or different in this iteration. Still, it has its bizarre charms. There's nothing quite like repeatedly smacking a zombie in the face with a foot-long purple "massager" while wearing nothing but a cowboy hat and boxer shorts. Unlike MY WIFE, I appreciate that Dead Rising 2 gives me the opportunity to do that. Regularly.
  • Red Dead Redemption. I haven't progressed much since I wrote about RDR last week, mostly because I've been obsessed with:
  • Deadly Premonition. Nothing, not even the aforementioned face-dildoing, comes close to the sheer WTF-erry of this budget-ass Twin Peaks ripoff. I'll write more about Premonition this week, but for now, let me just say that it has rapidly, unexpectedly, and thoroughly unironically shot up my "games of the year" list. In the meantime, go read Daniel Wiessenberger's excellent series of articles on the topic.

NINTENDO DS

  • Trauma Center: Under the Knife. Picked up this one, along with Harvest Moon DS, as a gift for Mrs. JPG. While the gameplay itself is fairly mediocre - it's a glorified pixel-hunt embedded into an anime-style medical drama - the real value of the title has been its voice clips. "Doctor Stiles?" Yeeeeeeessssssss, sexy nurse? Never gets old.

ANDROID

  • Angry Birds. Mad love to Rovio for bringing their adorable, addictive puzzler to Android - and for free, at that! If Jon Hamm's proselytizing isn't enough, the game is so great it's even inspired its own line of plush dolls. Only a few triumphs can pull that off.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday Links

Here's the roundup of pieces I've enjoyed this week:

  • This brief interview with the creator of Minecraft hints at an interesting, and I think worthwhile, take on videogame design - namely, that it should seek to emulate boardgames more.
  • Troy Goodfellow's post about how his deep immersion in the "grammar" of strategy games has conditioned him to respond to games in other genres is another topic that deserves further discussion, and I hope to see more from him, and others, on the subject.
  • As a nice companion piece to the above, check out Nels Anderson's recent post discussing the difference between "mastery" and "domination." A good read for game critics looking to build their lexicon.
  • Darby McDevitt's feature "A Practical Guide to Game Writing" at Gamasutra delivers exactly what it promises.
  • The reviews of Fallout: New Vegas are pouring in, and while I'm usually not big on reviews, Justin McElroy's and Russ Pitts' stand out. I've written before about how certain games seem impossible to quantify, and New Vegas seems like one of them. Where does that leave the reviewer, then? An experiential narrative style can go a long way in these cases.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Redemption Song, Part 2

I should have mentioned yesterday that I haven't even gotten to Mexico yet in Red Dead Redemption. Which means I'll probably be coming back to revisit these posts later on, since by all accounts that's when things take a sharp narrative turn for the worse (link contains spoilers). And with the game so heavily encouraging "taking the high road" in all encounters, I'm beginning to understand the big question in this review: "What's the point of a 'Moral Choice System' when so many moral choices are made for you?"

So: here's hoping "revisit" doesn't end up meaning "delete in embarrassment."

I haven't experienced enough of the story yet to make any pretense of intelligible analysis. Instead, having spent just north of ten hours roaming New Austin with John Marston, I want to talk about two other factors I think make the game successful - or at least more enjoyable than GTA IV.



1. Use of Space. It's only natural that a Western game would feature plenty of wide-open spaces. This is a welcome contrast to Liberty City, where I spent most of my time being chased down by cops for unintentionally flattening pedestrians on every street. You could make the point that GTA IV uses the cramped environs to make a thematic statement about Niko being trapped in his violent nature, and you might be right, but that's an annoying-ass way to make a (pretty obvious) thematic statement. Even when you're galloping full tilt down a narrow trail in RDR, you still have plenty of room to avoid any wagons or riders who happen by. This is enormously freeing: instead of tension being built by wondering when my janky-ass-controlling vehicle will accidentally smash into a cop and fail me out of my mission - a kind of Resident Evil tank control artificial difficulty - that job is left to the missions themselves. Whether RDR's missions succeed or fail at building tension effectively isn't my point, but rather that the designers' use of open space has largely liberated the player from this concern. Most of the time, you're not worrying about crashing into things - although, in typical sandbox game style, I did still manage to back my horse over a woman I'd just rescued from bandits the other night. Whoops.

Because towns and buildings are so few and far between, and traversal objectives so plentiful (see below), RDR encourages the player to truly explore the world in a way other sandbox games fail to. The "free roaming" in GTA IV, Crackdown, Red Faction: Guerrilla or Mercenaries 2 is an illusory at best and often simply tedious. Despite claims of "verticality" or "destructability" in these games, there's nothing intrinsically open-feeling about them; the worlds may be detailed, but you're always aware you're either in or between cities. Just Cause 2 avoids this trap somewhat by incorporating nifty traversal mechanics in the grappling hook and parachute and by featuring a massive map. Open space is an illusion in RDR too, of course. But there's nothing quite like an empty horizon - and, I think quite tellingly, a lack of motorized vehicles - to give you a satisfying illusion. The only other games I've played that pulls this off well is Oblivion and to some extent Fallout 3, although neither fantasy world felt as believably expansive, or as easy to traverse, as New Austin.

Yet when you enter a gang hideout or head into the hills to capture a bounty in RDR, the space inevitably narrows to allow for solid third-person cover shooting. I know this choice has caught some criticism - how convenient, there's cover in this combat location! - but think about it: how exciting (or long) could a gunfight in an open field be? There's a reason shootouts in Western movies always take place on horseback or in town - they'd be over in seconds otherwise. I'm a little baffled at the complaints here, especially since 100% cover-based shooters like Gears of War 2 make you press buttons in the game world to pop up cover during battles. As if the alien architect who designed Alien Palace anticipated there might be a firefight on the Promenade some day.

2. Traversal is Fun. I've fast-traveled, I dunno, five times in my ten hours with the game. The environments are so gorgeous, and full of so many sub-objectives - collecting herbs, hunting and skinning animals, rescuing strangers from bandits or coyotes, beating a fellow gunman in a sharpshooting challenge - that the only incentive to fast-travel is to save time between missions. So far, the "story" missions have been, by and large, the least interesting activities in the game for me.

I should pause here to note that I have a personal aversion to hunting for sport: I understand why some people like it, I guess, but it holds no appeal to me. It seems bizarrely anachronistic and unnecessary in 21st century America. I guess I view hunters in the same way I view people who refuse to use email: I can respect their reasons for doing so if they make sense, but I don't see much gain to it. Hell, I don't even like killing animals in videogames. (Humans are another story, but that's a topic for another post, and possibly for therapy.)

And yet, hunting is probably my favorite activity in RDR. I can't quite explain why. It's not the tangible rewards - the progress toward the Challenge objectives and the money from shopkeepers for the skins and meat - because in a way, there's so many sub-objectives in the game as to render them meaningless. Maybe it's the thrill of finding a hidden element and claiming it/dominating it, the same psychology behind pixel-hunt or whack-a-mole games. More likely, it's the first modern game to capture the unadulterated joy of hunting in Oregon Trail. Also, and maybe I just haven't gotten to this part yet, there's no dysentery.

Because RDR does give you all those sub-objectives - which are all, as far as I can tell, entirely optional and irrelevant to your character's skills or power - you have additional incentive, however arbitrary, to fully explore this incredibly detailed world the designers have presented you. This must be a tricky problem for designers of sandbox games - how do we get the player to dig into the nooks and crannies of this amazing space we've killed ourselves creating, to really appreciate the fidelity or polish of this product? I don't think we've quite found the answer yet - achievements/trophies can only motivate certain of us so far - but RDR is a step forward.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Redemption Song, Part 1

In Thieves' Landing, I watched a pig flick his ears to wave away invisible flies.

Meandering to the edge of his pen, the little porker snuffled the grass for a few seconds, then hunched down his front legs and slowly rolled onto his side. After a moment's pause, he squirmed onto his back, hooves raised in contentment as he wiggled in the mud.

I wandered over to the newsstand and bought the latest Blackwater Ledger. At the bottom of the one-sheet was an advertisement for a combination dining room chair/commode. "Relieve yourself without having to leave the table!" it proclaimed. Shit where you eat, indeed.

As the sun set, I mounted my Kentucky Saddler and rode west, back toward the MacFarlane Ranch.


About halfway to my destination I dismounted to pick some herbs for old Billy West, who had asked me to help put together a bouquet for his wife, Annabel. Annabel, it later turned out, was a rotting corpse propped up in a rocking chair, Mother-of-Norman-Bates-style.

It was at this point in Red Dead Redemption, when the game referenced a famous Edgar Allen Poe poem, that I was finally won over.

Admittedly, I'd been ambivalent about picking up RDR. After my bad experience with GTA IV, I was hesitant about plunking down money for what had been described by more than one source as "Grand Theft Horse." And Rockstar's history of asshole protagonists we're supposed to enjoy embodying didn't bode well for its Wild West outing. (There are convincing arguments for why they do so, however.)

And so RDR was maybe the first game I've bought with the express purpose of "being part of the conversation." It had popped up on so many "Game of the Year" lists that I'd have felt negligent not at least giving it a shot.

So far, I'm glad I did.

There are, of course, problems with RDR. In addition to the inevitable open-world jankiness, there are some serious disconnects between the game's fictional world and its sandbox structure. Many of these are detailed by Michael Abbott in this excellent post, so I won't bother going into more detail. But I do want to quote a passage from Michael's piece that perfectly captures my sentiment about RDR:

The GTA template is easily seen in RDR, but Rockstar has filled its new sandbox with rich atmosphere and an iconic landscape rendered with extraordinary attention to detail. GTA IV impressed with its skewed fidelity to New York City, but RDR's take on the American West transcends it and approaches visual poetry. The lighting alone is worth a studious blog post. I've grown so fond of riding my horse at sunrise and sunset that I've timed my sleep/saves to make the most of them.

Landscape is mythos in Westerns. RDR's pictorialism and environmental ambiance convey a sense of place more effectively than any game I've played. Its evocative, understated soundtrack amplifies the visuals, and its score echoes Ennio Morricone without aping him.

Very few games make me put down the controller and just stare, but this one does. In this world, wild horses still roam the plains; hawks circle overhead while the trail under your steed's thundering hooves coughs up clouds of dust. Look closely at the grasses and you may spot an armadillo nosing his way through a clump of desert sage. Standing atop a cliff overlooking the ramshackle town in the valley below, not feeling to the need to shoot anything or rescue anyone or fetch some item for a few experience points - that's a rare moment in a videogame, and an unexpectedly valuable one.

Which is why it's especially ironic that for a game that almost gives the player too much to do - too many activities and too much freedom - its best moments are the quietest ones.

RDR's most impressive achievement is, as Michael says, transcendence: the scrupulous attention to environmental detail results in an experience that transcends its own sandbox trappings. As a player, having broad freedom of action is secondary to the powerful feeling the game creates of being in this place. One might even argue, if one were feeling mildly pretentious, that RDR even transcends the myth of the Western, presenting a world that, even within its own internal fiction, both challenges and reinforces that myth. The early 20th century was a time of rapid social and technological change - change that came at a high cost and faced lots of resistance in "the last frontier" - and to some degree, I suppose, RDR is more effective as an exploration of that tension than as a sandbox shooter, or even a "Western" game.

And it's odd to say this about a Rockstar game, but damned if there isn't a lot of love that went into Redemption.

Tomorrow I'll write about the specific elements I think make RDR a success, and elaborate on how they illustrate key issues in game design. Until then, pardner.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Friday Links

A little late today, but here are your selections for the week:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Eating Our Young


(Image courtesy of Natalie Dee)

While enjoying my delicious Store-Brand Honey Cluster Cereal this morning, I happened upon a website full of critical essays by an author who was billed, by a poster to another site, as one of the few people out there writing worthwhile pieces about videogames.

What I found was a collection of some of the most vitriolic, pseudo-intellectual, downright hateful ranting I've ever seen. I'm not linking or naming names here for obvious reasons.

Might be because it was only 7:30 AM, but this stuff - which degenerated disturbingly quickly into misogyny and homophobia so thick they bordered on the legal definition of hate speech, and which was so obsessed with attacking other people that it almost parodied itself - really shook me. I'm not new to the Internet, but a level of trolling that pathological, that articulate, that thorough, was something I hadn't encountered before.

Lots of nuts couch their nuttery in a species of pseudo-philosophical justification, explaining away their meanness with a half-assed devotion to "living by principle," or some equally nebulous concept that only means something to people who think ideas will ever be more important than food or a warm bed or being loved. As if to say, the reason I'm an asshole is because I'm the only one out there who gets it, who's woken up, who's puzzled out the proper way to understand and interact with the world.

I don't want to engage with these people. At some point they've crossed a psychological threshold, lapsing into a persona that's incapable of being reasoned with and thrives on its own dysfunction.

There will always be wackjobs in the world - that's genetic, immutable. It's their followers we have to worry about.

These are the people, in politics as well as gaming, who are systematically devolving the level of discourse to the silliest playground ad hominem crap. And whether they realize or admit it, it's all in service of either attacking an enemy of their chosen champions or flattering the champions themselves. It doesn't matter whether these champions are human beings or ideas or "texts" like games; the intent is the same. There is a war to be fought, and I am a soldier in that war.

Thing about soldiers is, and with all respect to our actual armed forces: they're trained to not ask questions. They're trained to follow orders. Military discipline is not meant to inspire thoughtful debate, to make a soldier question his beliefs. It's meant to win wars. It's meant to keep our soldiers alive. And it works for this purpose.

But applying this doctrine to civilian life and particularly to any kind of discourse, especially around a topic as relatively trivial to human life as videogames, is not just silly. It's dangerous. Remember: without their armies of sycophants, the wackjobs are relegated to sandwich-board-street-corner status. No reasonable person bothers to engage with crazy people's ideas because, well, they're crazy. Give the nutballs a legion of followers, though, and pretty soon everyone has to engage with those crazy ideas, if only from sheer force of numbers.

Look: there are lots of passionate people in the gaming space, and I won't agree with a lot of them. I get that. I like that. But the level of casual incivility, exemplified particularly by the outright refusal to admit you might be wrong or reconsider your ideas, speaks to a larger problem. Some of us are so obsessed with tearing each other down, with proving incontrovertibly how vapid game journalism is or how the "games are art" debate is relevant/irrelevant or whatever the cause of the moment happens to be, that we are - at a time when gaming really is emerging into mainstream culture on an unprecedented scale - eating our own young. It's so ironic and sad. You can't be a soldier in the war for better game discourse if all you do is carpet-bomb anyone who might disagree with your dogma.

Since I started writing about games just six months ago, I've been lucky to receive encouragement, support, and the occasional friendly kick in the ass from a number of writers I admire and respect. I've met academics and developers and journalists at events, and corresponded with other industry folks - and without exception, they've all been really nice people. I may not always agree with their viewpoints, but they have interesting things to say, and they've never once retreated into rude, juvenile, or spiteful attacks - on games or on people.

And what characterizes this community more than anything else, I think, is an eagerness to listen, an almost childlike excitement to engage with differing viewpoints and invite doubt into their own beliefs. And accordingly, these folks often produce work that isn't interested in being "right" on some objective or philosophical level, but rather in exploring issues in gaming with nuance and precision and good humor.

So instead of feeding the troll, I'd like to end with some shout-outs to Chris Dahlen, Michael Abbott, Matt Weise, Rob Zacny, Leigh Alexander, Troy Goodfellow, Ryan Kuo, Gus Mastrapa, Kirk Hamilton, Dan Bruno, Ian Miles Cheong, Darius Kazemi, Chris Lepine, Justin McElroy, and of course, the whole Gamers With Jobs crew. Thanks, all, for the inspiration.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Who's The Boss?

So I finally finished up Resident Evil 5 the other night, and Holy Quick Time Event, was that final boss battle terrible.

Mrs. JPG and I ended up playing through most of the game together, which was bizarre considering she doesn't like games that 1) involve a lot of quick shooting, 2) have complicated controls, and/or 3) require fast and accurate button-mashing. Needless to say, we played on the easiest difficulty level. And strangely enough, we ended up (mostly) enjoying it. There was a certain perverse joy to overcoming the clunkiness of the control scheme just in time to blast an advancing zombie soldier, and to obsessively hunting through levels for spare ammo, and to manually(!) selecting and sharing said ammo with each other when in need.

(And, for the record: yes, I did share some of the
well-documented concerns about racist overtones in this game, but that's a subject for another discussion.)

But by the time we got to our fifth attempt at the final boss battle with Wesker, the charming gentleman pictured below, that joy had been thoroughly, painfully stamped out.


You see, immediately preceding the actual fight with Wesker - which is, like most of the boss battles in this game and in nearly every other game, a tedious exercise in pattern recognition - there was this insane QTE sequence where my dude had to uppercut a giant rock:

Click the image to watch this profoundly stupid sequence.

Capcom games, and the
Resident Evil series in particular, are famous for "artificially" inflating difficulty by foisting awkward controls and absurd timing challenges upon the player. It's not surprising to find these elements throughout RE5; you could tell from the demo it'd be a constant struggle between you and the input device. Given the prevalence of QTEs in RE4, it was a matter of course that they'd be back in the next installment. And while I think QTEs can make for interesting design discussions, I mention them here only because in this particular instance, QTEs highlight the bigger issue of how (not) to create satisfying boss battles. Let's look at this one more closely. (Spoilers ahead for this year-plus-old game, etc.)

So. In the final battle with Wesker, here's the sequence of events:
1. We're inside(?!) a fiery volcano(?). Both heroes, Chris and Sheva, run along a rock formation to avoid Wesker's flailing tentacles of death.
2. The rock formation collapses, separating our protagonists: Chris (Player 1) on the lower level, Sheva (Player 2) on the higher.
3. Chris runs up a small hill and engages Wesker in a gun battle, eventually prompting a brief cutscene in which Wesker jumps to the higher level and begins pursuing Sheva.
4. While Sheva runs ahead, Chris fires at Wesker to slow him down.
5. Running ahead triggers a QTE in which P2 (Sheva) must mash a button at an inhuman speed to avoid falling off a cliff. If P2 is not the AI, it is extraordinarily likely Sheva will fall to a flaming death, forcing both players to replay the entire 5-to-10-minute sequence again. (This is the point at which Mrs. JPG said, "Okay, I'm done with this shit," and I continued solo.)
6. Presuming Sheva survives, the above boulder-punching QTE ensues.
7. Chris and Sheva are reunited on a platform and the Wesker boss battle proper begins. I practice the "spin 180 degrees" button combination ~12-14x while attempting to shoot Wesker in the glowing orange pustule on his back, which opens a glowing orange pustule in his chest, which I then can shoot for damage. Repeat the entire torturous process ~3-5x until the final helicopter rescue cutscene plays, where...
8. ...there is one final, very easily missable QTE to polish off this turd of a battle. Good job, Player 1...?

Now, what has the game taught us in this, its final offering? Here's what I thought RE5 was telling me:
  • Mastery? Ha! Screw you. A successful game scaffolds a building sense of mastery as the player progresses, teaching new skills and combinations that the player can exploit to overcome increasingly difficult set of challenges. This is what Raph Koster and other smart people call "fun." Having the player's experience culminate in a ridiculous procession of QTEs, which are completely divorced from any skill the player may have learned, negates any sense of mastery she may have built in playing through the rest of the game and leads to a thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion. It's like taking an English course for two semesters only to face a final exam that's all biology questions. In Swahili.
  • Hey, know what this is? It's a videogame boss battle! In two previous encounters, a sunglass-clad, slick-haired, leather-suited Wesker bamfs around dodging point-blank shotgun blasts like the lovechild of Neo and Nightcrawler. In the final battle, he's a lumbering mutant (okay, fine) who's nigh-invulnerable, save those two Very Obvious Vulnerable Spots. The previous battles were interesting because they required some degree of logic to solve. In the first, you come to realize you actually can't hurt Wesker, but must simply outlast him until you can "rescue" his companion. In the second, you have to deduce that turning off the lights makes Wesker's reaction time slower, allowing you to fire a rocket at him and potentially kick off the victory conditions. In the final battle, constant close-ups of the glowing orange pustules do those mental gymnastics for you. Also, can we please kill the Very Obvious Vulnerable Spot thing? It was kinda old in the 16-bit era.
  • Think you've won? Not yet! Mwahaha! If I hadn't just spent 25 minutes memorizing the button sequence to make my dude punch a giant-ass boulder into lava for no discernible reason, I might have been more shocked by the sheer audacity of busting out the tired old Bad Guy's Not Really Dead! trope at the very end of this scene. In a way, including this last parting shot of a QTE was the only way to wrap this up properly. I mean, why give us a plain shit sandwich when you can give us a shit sandwich with mustard? Mustard that MAKES YOU GO BACK AND DO THE WHOLE GODDAMN THING OVER AGAIN IF YOU PUT THE CONTROLLER DOWN FOR FIVE SECONDS.
  • Stuck? Maybe you should just consult a FAQ. Fuck you. (Gimme the laptop.)
What drives me nuts the most about Resident Evil 5 is that for a game with so many bizarre and downright silly design decisions, its production value is extraordinarily high. The in-engine art and lighting are superbly executed, the cutscenes are remarkably choreographed, the sound design (especially the mutant enemies' sucking and gurgling noises) is suitably gross-out-inducing, and the shooting, when it works well, is really, really satisfying. It's clear a lot of work by very talented people went into this game, and I appreciate the technical acumen that's on display here.

Thing is, though: by the end of the game, the player should feel like the boss, not the other way around. Let me prove how powerful and skilled I've become; don't chain me to some stupid button-mashing sequence. Give me a true test, in the language you've just spent hours teaching me. And if that test is good enough, I'll come out of it ready to jump right back in to the whole adventure again.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Friday Links

Your choice cuts for this week as we slouch into October: